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How closely might the Falcons try to follow the Buffalo Bills’ blueprint for success?

An interesting Arthur Smith comment at Wednesday’s press conference sparked a desire to look back at what Buffalo has done to this point.

Buffalo Bills v New York Jets Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

It was somewhat of a throwaway comment, maybe, in a press conference where Arthur Smith spent a lot of time talking about the Buffalo Bills and praising one of the best teams in football. It was nevertheless, as Falcons reporter Tori McElhaney suggests, interesting to hear Smith say that he sees the Bills trajectory as “not dissimilar to what” the Falcons are “trying to build.”

What might that mean? The Falcons, after all, are a 7-8 team coming to an offseason with countless big decisions to make about this roster, from their longtime star quarterback to looming new contracts for the likes of Calvin Ridley and Chris Lindstrom. What was the Bills’ trajectory to get to this point, anyways? Let’s look.

A long-awaited rebuild

The Bills were stuck in neutral when Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane were hired in 2017, which in hindsight thankfully robbed the Panthers of maybe their most talented coach and front office executive. Rex Ryan had just put together a 7-9 season following an 8-8 season, which in turn came after a 9-7 season that represented Buffalo’s first winning campaign since 2004. They had not been to the playoffs since 1999 and were, one would think, sick of that.

The new regime was dealing with a ton of dead money on the cap and not a lot of cap space, a legacy of a front office that handed out huge contracts to players who were no longer living up to them. They moved on from former stars like Marcell Dareus in year one and leaned on incumbent starter Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, building a roster with a raft of budget free agents, a couple of impactful draft picks and the great Patrick DiMarco, and rode into the playoffs at 9-7 despite having a negative point differential on the season. I’m sure none of this sounds familiar.

In 2018, the team was a bit more aggressive in free agency, using some cash to land pass rusher Trent Murphy, former Panther defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and cornerback Vontae Davis, among others. They also moved aggressively in the draft to land their franchise quarterback, Josh Allen, with the seventh overall pick. All those moves didn’t add up to much in terms of results, as the Bills went 6-10 with a far worse point differential than the year before, a product of moves not panning out and Allen getting his feet under him.

Since then, though, the Bills have been one of the better teams in football. They’re a combined 32-15 since 2018 and have made the playoffs in back-to-back years, and they’re heading for what sure looks like a third straight playoff berth. Their roster is deep, talented on both sides of the ball and led by a terrific quarterback, and they’re now pushing forward with the fourth-lowest dead money in the NFL. Having suffered through a long, long stretch of frustrating play, the Bills signed up for a couple more rough years in the service of building what sure looks like a sustainable contender.

What might the Falcons be trying to emulate?

I’m certain you see the parallels here. Like the Bills, the Falcons have been mediocre-to-bad for a while now, though blessedly their playoff and winning season drought was not as long as Buffalo’s. Like Buffalo, this team has a multi-year problem with cap space partly owing to dead money, and either have already moved on from big contracts (Julio Jones) or may in the near future (Matt Ryan, Deion Jones, Jake Matthews, and Grady Jarrett are all possibilities with varying degrees of likelihood).

Brandon Beane took a hard look at his team after they made the playoffs in 2017 despite a shaky overall effort and hit the detonate button on the season, absorbing $70 million in dead money to clear out the likes of Sammy Watkins, Cordy Glenn, Tyrod Taylor, Ronald Darby, Marcell Dareus and pick up draft capital. His conclusion seems to have been that the roster had gone as far as it could with its crop of stars both still great and aging out of greatness, and the team needed money and draft capital to go further. The Bills have a mixed draft history, but they’ve certainly nailed enough signings and big picks to get there.

The Falcons’ cap situation is pretty precarious even if they’ll have some space next year, but Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith have now gotten a hard look at this roster and seen all its strengths and limitations over the course of a season. They would love to build a team like Buffalo’s, one that wins in both trenches and has stars all over the place, and they’ll now be faced with the offseason decision to either swallow some big hits in the service of taking the Buffalo path and moving players they don’t think will be a part of the next great Falcons team or trying to preserve the status quo because they think they’re only an offseason or two away from having all the pieces in place to win. While the seven wins suggest real progress, the team’s brutal point differential and inability to hang with the NFL’s better teams in 2021 suggest we can’t rule out the more drastic route from this front office.

Regardless, we shouldn’t take Arthur Smith all that literally here, because if we do the Falcons are going to likely be A) bad in 2022 and B) drafting a quarterback, and we’re hoping the former isn’t true and very unsure the latter will be. He did say the Falcons wanted to build something “not dissimilar,” not “Buffalo south,” after all. It just doesn’t take any great imagination to look at the Falcons’ roster and results this year and believe that this team may decide more drastic changes in 2022 are warranted to get the franchise to where Smith and Fontenot want it to go more quickly.

What is clear is that Atlanta is hoping to gut out a couple of tough seasons with limited cap space, tons of dead money and big contracts—they’re nearly done with one of them—and come out of that stretch as one of the NFL’s elite teams. That’s easier said than done, but Buffalo is proof it can be done, and we’ll see how closely the Falcons want to emulate one of the league’s most impressive recent success stories.